When some of America's hottest new restaurants, like Megu in Manhattan, want to create an impressive sake list, they turn to Ohio-born sake expert John Gauntner. In addition to writing a sake column for a Japanese newspaper, the Japan-based Gauntner has authored three books on the subject and maintains a Web site (sake-world.com). Here, he answers some basic questions:
What is sake, exactly?
It's an alcoholic drink brewed from rice, and it has the highest naturally occurring alcohol content of any brewed beverage. It's not a beer, as some insist, even though it's made from a grain. And it's not a rice wine, either.
Are there different grades of sake?
There are several. In general, the more you mill the rice the better the sake will be. Why? Milling removes the fat and protein from the grains, leading to a cleaner, more elegant flavor and aroma. About 85 percent of sake is the normal table kind (futshu). The next-higher grades are honjozo and junmai; then ginjo and junmai ginjo; and the highest are daiginjo and junmai daiginjo.
What should a high-quality sake taste like?
Look for balance between the flavors and aromas. There are good sakes that are perfumed and fruity, others that are pristine, light and dry, and others that are full and rich, but the key word is balance.
Is it better to drink sake out of a glass or a box?
A glass. The boxes, called masu, are made of wood, and the scent of the wood gets in the way of the sake aromas.
Is it true that good sakes should always be served cold, never hot?
Many brewers insist that a good-quality sake can be enjoyed both gently warmed and slightly chilled. It's basically a matter of personal taste, but in general, premium sake should be served slightly chilled.
Going to the Source
Shrines and rock gardens aren't the only attractions in the Kyoto area. A 20-minute train ride from the Japanese city's downtown is Fushimi, a sake-producing region known for its floral sakes made from the local spring water. The 367-year-old Gekkeikan brewery offers tours, tastings and a sake museum. DETAILS 247 Minamihama; 011-81-75-623-2056 or gekkeikan-sake.com.
Sake Hot List
A number of great sake bars have opened recently, and many top restaurants are offering ambitious sake lists. Here, a few of the best.
LAS VEGAS The 60-bottle sake list at this innovative new spot in the MGM Grand was created by sake sommelier Eric Swanson (who has consulted for Manhattan's Nobu) and sake expert John Gauntner. DETAILS 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-891-1111.
LOS ANGELES This two-year-old celebrity hangout features 36 sakes and Japanese dishes like roasted duck with shishito peppers. DETAILS 730 N. La Cienega Blvd.; 310-659-9449.
Saito's Japanese Café
SEATTLE This tiny restaurant and sake bar serves 40 sakes with its terrific sushi and sashimi. DETAILS 2122 Second Ave.; 206-728-1333.
AUSTIN This branch of the Aspen restaurant has a 22-bottle sake list and Tex-Asian dishes, like mustard-rubbed lamb with mint-shiso oil. DETAILS 419 Colorado St.; 512-320-8883.
NEW YORK CITY The sake list at this new bar offers 20-plus bottles, including sparkling varieties. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, mushroom dumplings are free. DETAILS 63 Clinton St.; 212-674-7300.
Twenty-five years ago, a Japanese monk touring a sake brewery in Kobe noticed that the hands of the elderly workers were unusually smooth. Chemists identified an extract of the yeast used to ferment sake as the wrinkle thwarter; this led to the creation of SK-II, a company specializing in products made with the extract, which it calls Pitera. SK-II's signature Facial Treatment Essence and its other Pitera products have just arrived stateside. DETAILS From $15; 877-551-7257.Mbr Jennifer Laing
Even French restaurants like New York City's Chanterelle have introduced sake pairing menus. Here, tips on matching various foods with some widely available sakes.
Creamy Soups & Sauces
PAIRING FULL-BODIED SAKES Cream-based, earthy soups, like a chilled vichyssoise or warm potato-leek, are best matched with a sake like the complex Tsukasobatan Junmai. Pastas with light cream sauces are nice with a buttery Umenishiki Junmai Ginjo.
Shellfish & Vegetables
PAIRING CRISP OR TANGY SAKES For briny shellfish like oysters, choose a sake like Moriko Junmai Daiginjo, which has a crisp, minerally quality. The tangy flavor of Wakatake Daiginjo works with grilled vegetables or hard-to-pair items, like asparagus.
Lamb, Veal & Pork
PAIRING AGED SAKES Sake pairs best with lean meats like lamb, veal and the less fatty cuts of pork. Aged sakes, which are not graded, have rich flavors that stand up to meat. Try the sherrylike Narutotai Daikoshu or the amber-colored Yashiorino.
Benihana founder Rocky Aoki's latest venture should ensure that his legacy goes beyond the chain of kitschy restaurants he founded in 1964. A sake devotee, the 65-year-old New York City-based Aoki launched the RKA Saké Club last year and published a book titled Saké: Water from Heaven. The club sends its 100 or so members one bottle each month. Handpicked by Aoki, each sakemany of which are rare in the U.S.comes with a description of its type, origin and flavor, along with food-pairing tips. New members receive an apple blossom-scented sake, Nanburyu, whose pale blue bottle with its gilded peacock label looks almost too pretty to open. DETAILS $325 a year; 212-421-7144 or rka-sakeclub.com.
Paris-based fashion designer Marcel Marongiu creates beautiful sake sets, made from glazed pigmented porcelain, for Artoria Limoges. His "Sake for Two" set includes two cups and a bottle. DETAILS $100 per set, with additional cups priced at $16 each; 212-532-4670.